WWhen it comes to gaming household names, few are more beloved than California’s Atari. The software house that spawned classics like pong, asteroids, Breaking out and centipede, this 8-bit behemoth once ruled retail. But after years of poorly licensed games in the ’00s – culminating in the mass burial of thousands ET gaming cartridges — and a misjudged 1990s pivot to mobile, many wrote the once legendary company off for good. Now, however, an ambitious new CEO wants to bring Atari back into the game.
In a speech to NME ahead of the company’s 50th anniversary, CEO Wade Rosen immediately impresses with his disarmingly laid-back presence and genuine passion.
“It’s exciting,” Rosen says. “Now Atari almost transcends the games it was originally founded on. You know the 13 year olds who wear Nirvana shirts? Atari shirts fall into that same genre.”
“Take something like pong”, he continues, “The number of people who have played the original pong is quite small – but everyone knows what pong is. As a pop culture brand…appearances in TV, movies, licensing etc. [Atari’s] never been stronger.”
While thrashing t-shirts, branded Lego and licensing appearances in Ready Player One and Weird stuff no doubt bringing in a few quid, it’s a somewhat sad fate for the industry’s original innovators – the games company that no longer makes games. It’s a perception Rosen would like to correct:
“Licensing is a big part of Atari, but we’re also focused on creating premium games for modern platforms.” Rosen replies, “[Scepticism] understandable, but everyone at Atari loves games these days – and they love making Atari games. We are not trying to be something we are not. We’re not trying to compete with companies we can’t compete with… we’re just trying to make great Atari games.”
It’s not just lip service either. Despite his relatively short time as CEO, Atari has released eight new games in the past 10 months. Thanks to a renewed focus on PC and consoles for the first time in decades, Rosen talks about a new energetic era of Atari that begins through a “Charged‘ line of games. In these £7.99 updates, classics like gravity and Breaking out get a modern lick of paint and bring them to consoles with quality of life changes like leaderboards, achievements and of course glossy HD graphics.
“The reception to” Charged has been great.” Rosen is beaming. Still, he reveals that these modest updates are just the beginning: “I think what the community is starting to see – which will become more apparent – is that Charged is the first of a bunch of new games we’re about to release, some in the Charged line, but many of them are sequels to classics, or reinterpretations of classics.”
While this may cause a nostalgic itch for gamers of a certain age, Rosen acknowledges that the industry has moved on:
“If you want to make a new one Asteroidyou can’t pretend Geometry Wars doesn’t exist – because it’s great,” he laughs.” So I think, okay, look at the positive challenge that [games like Geometry Wars] the present and the opportunity, and how can we take what has been done, and then push it further?”
This isn’t the first time Rosen has gushed about India. While Atari’s gameplay-first coin-guzzlers once dominated the arcade, the last twenty years have seen indie developers pick up that mantle and bring the arcade feel to modern consoles. For Atari’s next series of releases, the inspiration is clearly around.
“We would call these next games re-imagins. It takes the original mechanics and combines it with some of our favorite games. Whether that is, FTL, Into The Breakor metroyou can choose some of the iconic ones [indies] in the different genres and say, well, could we do a metroidvania and combine gameplay of an Atari game? Can we have human sim components like Faster than the light and do you still have active gameplay? That’s the challenge, looking at what has been done well by India and finding a way to cross that with Atari.”
In addition to indie-inspired modern gameplay, suggested titles like this one are all-new asteroids will even contain full-fledged stories.
“In the original games, you jump in and you’re right in, and you don’t really know why you’re shooting asteroids or shooting centipedes. Of Charged…there are characters and a whole world built around them [their mechanics]with a compelling plot that propels it forward.”
Will these story-led, indie-inspired twists on arcade classics be enough to stand out in a crowded market? We will see. Still, it’s an Atari that feels a world away from the lows of aggressive microtransactions or burying unsaleable games in a New Mexico landfill.
Speaking of pieces of plastic, there’s one last piece crucial to Rosen’s retro resurrection: new hardware. “As we look ahead, hardware will continue to be part of it…a big, big piece.” Rosen teases. “I think there is a place for Atari given its legacy in retro and so the goal now is to find out what that looks like,”
Largely forgotten console from 2017 – the Atari VCS – it’s a space where Atari has undoubtedly lost its market share. Now, with ROM-loaded handhelds already a completely cornered — and legally dubious market — what modern relevance does he think an Atari box could have?
“In front of [Atari], hardware does not mean competing with Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo,” he replies. “It’s about providing value. What we’re really doing is we’re stepping back and saying, if we’re going to do this, where can we be top of the class?”
“I love that there’s a really big, illegal rom scene? No, but at the same time it challenges us.” Rosen continues: “The product we bring to the market has to be so much better because of that. It’s the same with Spotify, because that product is so good, why would I want to download music illegally? That’s what we need to capture. Sure, I can have a Raspberry Pi with 5000 games. but you really never want 5000 games. I don’t think a lot of people are bothered by not having enough games, if anything we struggle with the opposite.”
Rosen also sees a future where internal studios will eventually sit under the Atari umbrella.
“On the long-term software side, you probably need to have some in-house development eventually. I think it’s a combination of working with great third-party developers and then, over time, building or onboarding studios and bringing them in for an in-house studio.”
One of the more impressive announced offerings is: Atari 50: the anniversary party. In collaboration with the studio behind porting arcade classics to Gameboy – Digital Eclipse – this 50th anniversary collection features interviews from Ernest Cline to Cliff Blesinzki alongside a playable timeline of Atari’s classics to date.
While Roseen teases Warioware style minigame collection filled with Atari IP, in which you play a janitor in the Atari museum, Rosen keeps tight-lipped about what else we can expect.
“We want to do about one or two new IPs a year. So we’ve got another one to announce this year… and it’s going to be a fun one.” He hints, however, that he’s won a surprising dev talent:
“I think that was an advantage that I did not foresee with Atari,” says a smiling Rosen. “[Studios] really want to work with you because of the IP. You get the chance to work with really great partners in a way that I have never experienced before.”
Still, there is a lot of work to be done. Google Atari, and the first question that pops up is: Does Atari still exist? What, I ask, would Rosen say to? NME readers still skeptical of Atari’s gaming intentions and even relevance in 2022?
‘Look, if there’s any doubt, it’s understandable. But understand that change takes time. A company with a 50 year history doesn’t turn around in 12 months – it doesn’t turn around in 18 – It literally takes years to create new content, build on the IP and find new partnerships, but that’s what we working every day.”
“I think the real surprise for the 50th anniversary is how many people planned their own celebrations – how many people still really love this brand. I love the brand too and we want to celebrate with you.”
You can watch Atari’s Charged collection here.